Friday, 17 July 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

July 17

Not such a good day for many of the folk involved with today, but not a bad one at all as far as Charles VII of France was concerned. Firstly, in 1429, he finally managed to get the French crown on his head, though that had by no means been all plain sailing for this rather bizarre-looking chappie, seeing he was not only the fifth son of Charles VI – and thus miles away from any chance of warming the throne – but he was actually Charles III when it came to his own family, two of his elder brothers also being christened Charles, meaning that either Charles VI wasn’t especially gifted when it came to thinking up names for his boys (he was mad, don’t forget) or else Mrs Charles VI – that’d be notorious Isabeau of Bavaria – finally put her foot down and told him to come up with something else for their third lad, Louis. And for the fourth one, John. But then he fell back into his old ways again and we ended up with another Charles. All four elder siblings had a go at being Dauphin but, as luck would have it, they all died childless. Which seemed to leave the way clear for our man. Until, that is, his own parents decided he wasn’t actually Dauphin material because he wasn’t actually legitimate after all. And if anyone should know, it was his promiscuous mum. Things weren’t looking any too clever for Charles, not even when his old man finally pegged out in 1422 – Charles VI had gone from being Charles the Beloved to Charles the Mad, mainly on account of his belief that he was made of glass and that everyone was plotting to push him over so he’d shatter, he dashed around the palace corridors howling like a wolf so they had to brick up the doors to keep him in but, most bonkers of all, he’d named Henry VI (of England) as his heir when the English were the very blighters they’d been trying to knock the living daylights out of for the past eighty-odd years. That didn’t stop son Charles claiming the title Dauphin, the main problem being that he couldn’t actually get to Reims to get himself crowned because the whole place was crawling with English just then and they didn’t seem in any particular hurry to leave, not while they were doing so well at the old giving the French a darn good battering lark.
By 1429, things had taken a decidedly iffy turn, what with Orléans being under siege and the Duke of Bedford bearing down on them like an enraged rhinoceros, so Charles was getting a tad despondent about the situation. But then he suddenly got to hear about some teenage lass called Joan (well, Jeanne, actually), and it seems that visions and voices of angels had been telling her it was her job to sort the English out once and for all so that Charles could finally get to Reims and get cracking on his kinging. Rather than coming to the conclusion that she must be totally barking – who could be, in comparison to his old man? – Charles thought it was probably worth a whirl and, besides which, the only other option was to finish up on the sharp end of some lively English archery practice again, so they decided to give it a go. Mind you, he’d also been told that this girl had claimed she would recognise her Dauphin without ever seeing him before so, being a wily old dolphin (which is what Dauphin means –Guy IV, Count of Vienne, had one on his coat of arms and got nicknamed le Dauphin, then sold the name to the king on condition the heir was always called that) decided he’d pull a crafty one by lurking hidden amongst his courtiers to see if this Jeanne sort really could pick him out like she claimed. Of course, she went straight to him, no bother, though there has to be a sneaking suspicion that someone had tipped her off to make a beeline for the lugubrious-looking bald bloke with baggy eyes, thick lips and a whacking great bulbous hooter. After that, things really started to look up: Jeanne got the siege of Orléans lifted within the week (she could’ve done it in a day or so, only the French commanders thought that’d make them look about as much use as a glass king), and then pushed the English and their Burgundian henchmen far enough back for Charles to at last reach Reims and get the crown on his scalp this day in 1429. And so they all lived happily ever after. Except for the English and the Burgundians, that is, who were downright miffed about the whole episode. And Jeanne, of course, who they got hold of soon after and, being egregiously bad losers, had her burned as a heretic.

July 17 was another good day for our man come 1453 because he would then become known as Charles the Victorious following the Battle of Castillon, though, truth be told, it was more down to the blundering incompetence of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury. As far as soldiering goes, the English had Talbot down as the best general they’d got. Which doesn’t say much for the rest of them, seeing he was rumoured to be about eighty (he was actually sixty sixish so must’ve lied about his age), though the main drawback with him as a fighting force was that he’d been taken hostage at Rouen in 1449 and had to promise never to wear armour against the French again in order to gain his freedom. Being a medieval nobleman of true chivalry (not to mention an utter twit), he kept his word. Having captured Bordeaux (and much of Western Gascony) in late 1452, he then waited until he had a nice day for it before setting off on July 16 for Castillion to give the good people there a similar taste of what-for English-style, only he must’ve been in far too much of an all-fire rush because he outstripped the majority of his troops and arrived with only a depleted force. Rather than waiting for the rest to catch up, and having heard that the French were making a run for it, Talbot decided on an immediate advance the next day. Unhappily, the dustcloud they’d spotted turned out to be just the camp followers making for a safe spot to watch the battle from and what they ran into was the full firepower of the French Army. Who, by then, had guns. Loads of ‘em, wheel to wheel, each shot taking six men out at a time. Wholly undeterred by being hopelessly outnumbered and smashed to pieces as soon as they came within range, Talbot continued to urge his men onward, possibly because, as a knight, his honour was at stake as he’d already given the order to attack but, more likely, being in a position of high management, he was entirely unable to bring himself to say, “Sorry, lads, I appear to have dropped an almighty clanger on this one, so let’s pack it in, shall we?” Such good old English pluck meant that, within the hour, not only was Talbot lying dead and the rest legging it out of there as fast as they could, but also that the whole Hundred Years War had been lost in a single morning. By lunchtime, all we had left was the Pale of Calais – which’d be the English daytrippers, one assumes …

We’ve all of us, no doubt, fired off an email in the heat of the moment and then, the very second it’s sent, rather wish we hadn’t. Well, it was much the same with Mary, Queen of Scots this day in 1585 only, in her case, it was a letter. Though she’d taken the trouble to encrypt it and to smuggle it out in a barrel of beer, so it wouldn’t end up in the wrong hands. Mind you, she never was the luckiest of women, even though she’d been quite a looker in her day – the “most beautiful woman in Europe.” First, she married Francis, Dauphin of France (she was nearly six foot and he was stunted and stuttered), so she ended up being Queen of France for about eighteen months (she’d been Queen of Scots since her father died when she was six days old) until Francis died of an ear infection, so she was forced to actually go to Scotland for once, where she ended up marrying a syphilitic drunkard, Lord Darnley, who wound up being blown up by Mary’s thuggish lover, Bothwell, who raped her then married her. Which caused such a stink that she was forced to abdicate and do a swift one out of there. Straight into the arms of Elizabeth I, who promptly locked her up for the next twenty years. It has been suggested that this was merely out of jealousy, just because Mary was taller, something of a stunner, had been Queen of both France and Scotland, and had commanded a court of over a thousand servants, but not a bit of it. It was Security, plain and simple. Well, she was a Catholic, next in line to the English throne and, worst of all, Scottish, so clearly one to keep a close eye on. Ginger Liz would claim that Mary was “under house arrest” (the two women never met), though it’s to be hoped she didn’t treat all her guests the same way. Some accounts maintain that her jailors (one of whom was another Earl of Shrewsbury) kept her so closely banged up that she spent all her time alone in bed with no social contact, in a cold damp room with barred windows that prevented the sun from reaching her, directly beneath which the “privies stench system” operated. By the time she penned that letter, she had lost her looks completely, become grossly obese, double chinned, chronically sick and was unable to walk unaided. Twenty years of that sort of treatment might make any of us mustard-keen to escape such a situation, whatever it took.
So, when Anthony Babington wrote to her on 7 July 1586 saying he might have a way out for her, she naturally leapt at the chance. Babington, of course, is a name only ever encountered in the phrase “Babington Plot,” whilst “Plot” always refers to some dismal historical almighty failure (when such things actually do get pulled off, they end up with names like “The Glorious Revolution”), so she should’ve known what might happen. Nonetheless, on 17 July, she whipped out her quill and dashed off a swift response to old Babbers, all in code, of course, but along the lines of, “Like your thinking, Tony but, look ye here, why don’t we assassinate the reigning monarch while we’re at it? That way, I not only get out of here but get to be queen too.” And, before you could say “Look out, Babington’s a seditious traitor,” away it went in the beer barrel. Alas, only as far as Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham, an especially nasty piece of work (a Rough in a Ruff) but said to have an incisively brilliant mind, who had it decoded in a jiffy. In fact, he’d been trying to stitch Mary up for pretty much the whole twenty years and it’d been him who’d come up with the message-in-a-barrel idea in the first place. After the Throckmorton Plot (no prizes for guessing how that one ended), Walsingham prevented Mary from sending or receiving communications of any kind. Until it finally dawned on him that if nobody could write to her, they couldn’t embroil her in traitorous schemes, could they? (Not quite so brilliant after all, it seems). So then he hatched this plan and roped in a likely brewer to do the dirtywork and, before many years had passed, he’d finally got her bang to rights. Not satisfied with that, he had the letter copied (so they’d still have the original as evidence) and then added an extra bit to Babington about, “how about telling the names of all the plotters, then?” And then had him arrested before he’d had a chance to spill the beans (not very brilliant at all, we’d’ve said), though they still managed to round ‘em all up and, on 20 September 1586, they were all hanged, drawn and quartered for being rotters. In the October, they tried Mary, who pleaded not guilty, amazingly enough, even though she had penned her willingness to take part in the royal slaying herself. She wasn’t permitted legal counsel or to call witnesses and, on top of that, her so-called friends let her down when they decided they’d rather shop her than spend any more time hanging about on the rack (known jovially as Kissing the Duke of Exeter’s Daughter) and thus she was condemned. On 8 February 1586, at Fotheringhay Castle (it’s only in this context that you’ll ever hear of Fotheringhay), she was beheaded. It took three blows. A lapdog then emerged from under her skirts.
Come 17 July 1850, some academia finally gets to creep into the day when astronomers Whipple and Bond became the first to take a photograph of a star. Which is pretty early, when you think about it, so it was obviously a daguerreotype, invented by a French bod magnificently called Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who also initiated the “selfie,” by the look of it (it isn’t and he didn’t) and the subject was the star Vega, or Alpha Lyrae, in an exposure of some one hundred seconds. It’s only twenty five light years from Earth (you still wouldn’t want to bike it), though it’s only about a tenth the age of the Sun but over twice as massive. Both stars are said to be in their middle age, which is a tad worrying, though we should be OK. At one time, Vega was actually the Pole Star, around about 12,000 BC time and will be again, if we hang around long enough, though that won’t actually come about until the year 13727, so you should maybe be getting on with something else in the meantime.
The magazine Punch came into being this day in 1841 and they appropriated the term “cartoon” (then an artist’s template drawing for a painting) for their political sketches, which is how we end up with our modern sense of the word. They also coined a number of phrases, including the Curate’s Egg (first seen in 1895). But we’re going to leap straight on our good friends the Royals, who also got up to stuff today. By 1917, Britain and her allies had been pursuing a bloody conflict against the Central Powers, led by the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm II, when our king, George V (the Kaiser’s cousin), was suddenly struck by a thought (no, that’s not the end of the story) and decided that it wasn’t particularly British of him and his kin to carry on calling themselves by the name of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, or the Dukes of Teck or Württemberg, or the Prince of Battenberg or of Schleswig-Holstein, all of which had an uncomfortable whiff of German about them. What had rammed the whole idea into George’s mind in the first place was probably when H. G. Wells wrote about his, “alien and uninspiring court,” to which he riposted, “I may be uninspiring, but I'll be damned if I'm alien.” So George changed the family name this day in 1917, to Windsor (wonder where he might have been when he came up with that). Even Kaiser Bill couldn’t resist having a sardonic pop, remarking that he’d “look forward to the first production of the Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.” Don’t be downhearted, folks: we soon got our own back on that pompous perisher when our troops started referring to him as “Little Willie.”

George must’ve still been feeling a touch sensitive about his unBritishness a year later when another cousin of his put him in a rather ticklish position. That’d be Nikolai Romanov, of course, who’d himself got into a horrible spot of bother just then, not least for having the title Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias (though Russia formally ended the Tsardom in 1721 and he was said to be “a very little fellow on very ordinary legs”), which gives an idea of the sort of guy he was. To be strictly fair to him, he’s the type of bloke who would have to improve markedly to even achieve uselessness, seeing the whole Empire went to the dogs in his time. He also managed to end up with the nickname Nicholas the Bloody because of his pogroms and his executions of political opponents. He was the spitting image of George V too, which didn’t help when things got tricky. Early in 1917, an ungrateful peasantry began to notice that, while they were freezing and starving, their glorious leader and his cronies were living the Life of Reilly, despite the fact that it was them who were responsible for all the hunger and shortages in the first place. So they started chanting, “Down with the Tsar!” Who then did what any head of state would do in such a situation and turned the police on them, to shoot them down in the streets. Which didn’t really help his cause all that much and, before he knew where he was, he had a fullscale Revolution on his hands and was swiftly penning his abdication.

It’s times like this when you really need the family to rally round and, what with the underlings literally turning Bolshie, Nicky thought it might be an idea to slip quietly away somewhere where the winters (and the people) weren’t quite so bitter. Say England, for instance. Where cousin Georgie had palaces galore standing empty where he might doss down for a few months while he waited for the call from All the Russias to arrive, begging him to come back Tsarring again. So he gives George a quick bell, only to find that the royal cousin is none too keen on the idea at all. Don’t forget, George’d only just convinced the British public that he wasn’t an alien himself, so the last thing he needed just then was some foreign autocratic relation who happens to look exactly like him popping out of the woodwork and pulling the rug from under him. So he told him, “Most awfully sorry and all that, old boy, but no can do, don’t you know?” After all, what’s the worst that can happen? 

In April 1918, still hoping to be rescued, the Romanovs were taken to Ipatiev House, where they must have been intrigued to discover that it was referred to as “the House of Special Purpose.” Though they couldn’t’ve been expecting to be rudely awakened at two in the morning on 17 July and then asked if they wouldn’t mind popping down the basement for a minute where, as the ex-empress had to point out, there weren’t even any chairs for them to sit on. So some fellow by the name of Yurovsky sent for some and, once they were nicely settled and arranged in a rather formal grouping, he then told them to hold that pose and, whilst the whole family was gathered together, he was just going to take one or two quick shots. And then in marched the firing squad …  

Charles VII of France: Jean Fouquet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan Of Arc: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Death of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury: Charles-Philippe Larivière [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary, Queen of Scots: After François Clouet [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Francis Walsingham: Attributed to John de Critz the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre: By Jean-Baptiste Sabatier-Blot (1801-1881) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
“Good Riddance” (Punch cartoon showing George V sweeping away his German titles): Leonard Raven-Hill [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Nicholas II & George V: By Arthur William Debenham (1875–1944[1]) Cowes ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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